By Jordan Cohen
It begins in a room with a red-tiled floor. The floor has one row of chairs lining its perimeter. People inhabit those chairs. The people look at each other, dressed in their regular clothes, waiting for something to begin. They have come off the street to inhabit this red-tiled room. They wait. Slowly, deliberately, a plain-dressed woman, sitting in a chair in the room, begins to move her hands and arms like a wave. She looks around at the people in the room. She looks to her left, to her right. Without speaking, with only a soft look, the person to her left begins to gesture in the same way. And the next person. And so on.
Soon, all of the people in the room are gesturing, wave-like, and in unison. Something is now happening in the room. Something that was not happening before.
It’s a simple and beautiful way to begin 600 Highwayman’s The Fever, a performance whose life depends on us – the audience – and our willingness to play along, to connect with each other and with the performers, to observe and listen to each other, to support each other – at times, physically – and to accept with an open heart the power of ritual to bring us together. The performers of The Fever look, dress, and sound just like us, and indeed, could be any one of us, a metaphor made literal each time a performer emerges from the audience and slyly reveals themselves by taking over the narration.
More things will happen over the next seventy-five minutes. An old man will fall down while some of us try to catch him. A little girl – one of us, not a performer – will run, skip, dance, laugh. She will command the space. A young man will get very close to one of us, embracing her. That same young man will sprint across the tiled floor. We’ll also meet Marianne, a party host, played by several of us; in one moment, we’ll be Marianne, placing our hands on our foreheads, feeling her grief; and in another, we’ll mourn with Marianne, her sadness overcoming us like a spell. We’ll carry, collectively, a young person above our heads, across the tiles. We’ll dance, all of us, in unison. The lights will fade; the music will swell.
While the narrative lingers in the realm of the abstract, issues of identity, aging, loneliness, and isolation are cogently explored, more often through affect and poeticism rather than the rational unfolding of action or thought. 600 Highwayman seems unconcerned with the rational, devoted whole-heartedly to knowledge produced by our minds and bodies when we allow ourslelves to dial down our reactionary impulses, and in doing so, welcome the world in ways we normally would not.
There is almost no moment in the performance when one or more – and sometimes all – audience members aren’t performing along with the cast. As the performers narrate, we do. We walk with the performers, we dance, we play the “mirror” game, we move their bodies for them; there is lots of touching, a little giggling, and, surprisingly little resistance. It goes without saying; if audience participation isn’t for you, avoid this show like plague.
The performers narrate in a style I’ve attempted to replicate above, speaking with a will to make happen, as in ritual, not with commands but with sureness that their words will spark the alchemical process required to make us, the audience, play along. And we do. The performance is so much about the magic of the mimetic – the ineffable delight and driving human need to do as we see, as we hear, as we imagine, as we believe – and the incredible empathy this kind of doing can elicit.
The Fever was written and directed by 600 Highwayman founders Abigail Browde & Michael Silverstone, and created in collaboration with Brandon Wolcott, Emil Abramyan, Eric Southern. The superb cast includes Browde, Silverstone, Tommer Peterson, Marchánt Davis, and Jax Jackson.
By 600 Highwayman
Original Music: Brandon Wolcott & Emil Abramyan
Production Design: Eric Southern
Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott
Under The Radar Festival at the Public Theatre – LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10003
Running through January 15
Tickets: publictheater.org or call 212-967-7555